Merrow Front Cover - A Novel by Louise Cooper

1: Daughter of Storms
ISBN 0-340-77852-0

Shar Tillmer's uncle, Thel, is determined to send her away from the Star Peninsula, home of the Circle, to a Sisterhood cot. But Shar desperately wants to stay where she is; and with good reason. She has uncovered the bones of a plot to assassinate one of the most important men in the world, and with the Circle's help she has no chance of thwarting the plotters—whoever they are. For though she has suspicions, she doesn't yet know their identities. The only person she can trust is her friend Hestor, a junior initiate of the Circle. Now Hestor has come up with a plan to enable Shar to stay at the Star Peninsula—by asking the gods themselves for help…

The second moon was starting to set when Hestor came to Shar's room. Shar was awake; too keyed-up to sleep, she had been silently rehearsing the words of the ritual which Hestor had taught her. Two of the castle's cats were curled at the foot of her bed; they woke and wanted to follow but Shar gently pushed them back and, carrying a candle apiece, she and Hestor slipped out into the dark corridor.
The castle was eerily quiet. Faintly in the distance Shar thought she could hear the roar of the sea, but there was no other sound to break the silence. They met no one in the shadow-haunted passages and soon reached the courtyard by a side door. As they crossed the flagstones Shar looked up at the huge, black spires towering into the night, and suppressed a nervous shiver.
'Come on,' Hestor whispered. 'We have to go through the library.'
The spiral staircase was like a murky well waiting to swallow them, and the candles cast ominous shadows that followed them all the way down. In the library Shar hugged herself and tried not to shiver as Hestor led her through the gloom to a small alcove in the far corner, all but hidden by shelves. She had never noticed this niche before, but in it was a low door, which Hestor opened. Dim grey light shone beyond the door, revealing a narrow and strangely symmetrical passage leading slightly downwards; they doused their candles and began to walk down the slope.
The glow grew stronger as they went on, until it was almost as bright as day. Then before them was another door, made of metal and shining with a weird, soft phosphorescence. This, Shar realised, was the source of the light, and she hung back a little as Hestor approached the door and laid a hand on it.
The door swung open. Hestor looked back over his shoulder and smiled. 'Come on,' he said.
Slowly, Shar moved forward, and stepped over the threshold of the Marble Hall.
The Hall was filled with a swirling mist of soft pastel light that curled and flowed through the air as though it were alive. Tall, slender pillars filled the Hall like a marble forest, and the walls and ceiling were invisible in the haze. Beneath her feet, the floor was a complicated and beautiful mosaic of pale colours, arranged in patterns that seemed to move and change as she looked at them.

Shar let out a soft, astonished breath. Legend had it, she knew, that the Marble Hall's dimensions were fractionally out of step with the normal laws of time and space. It was said to be impossible to touch its boundaries, and as she gazed wonderingly about her she felt dwarfed and insignificant.
Hestor said, with soft pride in his voice, 'Isn't it beautiful?'
'It's wonderful.' The word was completely inadequate but Shar couldn't express her feelings any better. What must it be like, she thought wistfully, to be an initiate of the Circle and to know and use this incredible place as they did? She would give anything, anything, to share that privilege.
Hestor led her across the mosaic floor. In the mist ahead darker shapes loomed suddenly, and Shar's eyes widened still further as she saw what they were. Seven statues, more than twice the height of a tall man, each one depicting two figures standing back to back... these were the only images in the world of the seven lords of Order and the seven lords of Chaos. Their stone faces gazed across the Marble Hall, and Shar, mesmerised, stared at the central and tallest statue, which depicted the two greatest gods, Yandros of Chaos and Aeoris of Order. Aeoris looked serene and stern and aloof, but Yandros's narrow mouth and slanting eyes had a hint of dark humour that she found disturbing and yet exhilarating at the same time. Tonight she would make a solemn pledge in their names, and the thought made her shiver.
Hestor, too, had stopped before the central statue, and he looked at Shar, his expression serious. 'Well?' he said. 'Are you ready?'
Shar nodded, and Hestor turned to face the figures of the gods. He made the splay-fingered sign of reverence to all fourteen deities, and Shar followed suit. Then Hestor spoke.
'Great Aeoris, master of the powers of Order; great Yandros, master of the powers of Chaos; I come to this place in reverence, and I speak with the rightful authority of a true initiate of the Circle.' He bowed to the statue. 'I bring to this place a candidate with a pledge to be heard and sanctioned so that no mortal power may oppose it.' Now he turned slowly on one heel until he was facing Shar. 'Candidate, what is your name and your rank?'
Shar swallowed, wishing her throat wasn't so dry. 'I am Shar Tillmer, Novice of the Sisterhood.'
'And what is your purpose here?'
'To pledge an oath before the gods, and to hear that oath witnessed by an initiate of the Circle.'
'Do you come of your own free will?'
'I do.'
Hestor nodded. 'Then turn now, and with proper reverence make your oath.'
Shar's heart pounded as she faced the statue once more. She spread her arms wide, bowed her head, and said, 'I swear that I will not return to the Sisterhood Cot in West High Land, but will stay at the castle of the Star Peninsula until those who plot against the High Initiate have been unmasked.' Now she raised her head and gazed steadily at the statue. 'In the name of Yandros of Chaos, and in the name of Aeoris of Order, this is my oath. And I ask that Hestor Ennas, initiate of the Circle, shall bear witness to it.'
Hestor took a pace forward. 'In the names of Aeoris and Yandros, I, Hestor Ennas, initiate of the Circle, duly bear witness to the oath pledged by Shar Tillmer.'
There was a brief silence. Then Hestor said, 'There. It's done—and no one can make you break it!'
Shar was about to reply when a sound from behind them forestalled her—rapid footsteps. Alarmed, she turned her head and saw two figures moving towards them from the direction of the door.
'What is this?' It was her uncle, his astonishment and outrage echoing through the Marble Hall as he emerged from the mist. And at his side, to Shar's horror, was the High Initiate.
'Hestor! Shar' Neryon's voice was a furious hiss. 'What do you think you are doing? Answer me—at once!'

It was Shar and Hestor's sheer bad luck that the High Initiate's personal steward had not yet gone to bed and had seen them making their way towards the library. After pondering for some time whether he should interfere, the steward had at last gone in search of his master, and had found Neryon and Thel taking a late-night glass of wine together in Neryon 's study.
Neryon was angry enough that Hestor had flouted the Circle's rules by entering the Marble Hall in the first place, but when the boy confessed what they had done, his anger erupted into fury.
'An Oath Ceremony?' The High Initiate's eyes blazed. 'You dare to use the Circle's rites on a juvenile, flippant and careless whim? This is an absolute profanity!'
'But sir,' Hestor protested desperately, 'it was the only way to—'
'It was the only way you could think of to defy my authority as Shar's legal guardian!' Thel snapped. 'Not to mention the authority of your High Initiate! Great gods, if you were my ward I'd take the skin from your back for this!'
'Oh, he'll be severely punished, Thel, be assured of it,' Neryon said darkly. 'But before I consider what steps to take, I'll make one thing clear. To both of you.' Now his glare took in Shar as well. 'The Circle's rites are solemn and serious, and I will not tolerate their use for trivial purposes! We arrived too late to stop the Oath Ceremony being performed. But as High Initiate, I declare it null and void.'
Shar looked horrified, and Hestor started to protest. 'Sir, you can't! Shar has made a promise to the gods, and—'
'Who do you think you are, boy, to lecture me?' Neryon interrupted ferociously. Hestor and Shar both flinched back—but suddenly Shar gave a cry and clasped both hands to the sides of her head.
'What—' The High Initiate stopped in his tracks.
'Shar? Shar, what's the matter with you?' Thel demanded anxiously.
'I—' Shar clenched her teeth, shaking her head violently. 'Ohh, it hurts!'
Abruptly the mists of the Marble Hall swirled and agitated, and the floor vibrated as a deep, throbbing sound began to pulsate through the air. Thel uttered a shocked oath and looked wildly round—then Shar cried out again.
And, with a whistle of air and a rush of heat and cold together, a host of elementals erupted out of nowhere into the Marble Hall.
Neryon looked stunned as a storm of tiny flames, snowflakes, feathers and leaves whirled in mad confusion around him. Gathering his wits, he opened his mouth to shout a banishing spell, but before he could utter the first words the elementals fused into a small tornado with Shar as their target. Spinning ever more turbulently, they gathered over her head. Then they spread out, forming a shape above her, and the High Initiate's eyes widened in amazement as he recognised it.
It was a seven-rayed star—the symbol of the gods of Chaos.
The star pulsed once, hugely, sending a vivid splash of light across the Hall. Then, with a smack of displaced air that echoed between the pillars, the elementals vanished as suddenly and explosively as they had come.
The mists were still again. The throbbing sound stopped. And with a gasp, Shar fell to the floor.
Neryon said softly, 'Great gods…' and Hestor ran to Shar's side, crouching down to take her by the shoulders. But she hadn't fainted; she had simply collapsed, and with his help she managed to struggle into a sitting position. Thel was staring at her, and his face was white.
'Shar,' he said at last in a stern, shaking voice, 'What do you mean by calling on those creatures?'
'She didn't call on them!' Hestor retorted fiercely. 'No one did—they came of their own accord!'
'The boy's right, Thel,' Neryon said. 'Even a high-ranking adept can't perform an elemental summoning with no preparation and no ritual. I couldn't have done it, and neither could you.'­
Thel had to admit that was true. 'Then it was a trick,' he said sourly. 'Elementals are attracted to Shar, and we both know the creatures' love of mischief!'

'I don't think this was mischief,' said Neryon, and Shar saw that his expression was very serious. 'You saw the sign they formed, Thel. No elemental would dare to make mockery of Chaos's own symbol. I believe…' He hesitated, while his gaze fixed. with unnerving steadiness on Shar's face. 'I believe that this is a sign from the gods. And I don't think it would be wise of us to ignore it…'